On the last day of a seven-week seminar on organizational behavior, a participant said she was confused. We had talked extensively about leadership in the workshops, and so many contrasting notions came to the surface. She quickly reviewed her reasoning:

  1. We talked about Level Five leaders, who all possessed a certain combination of qualities in order to lead their companies from good to great.
  2. Her team read a book on finding personal strengths and capitalizing on those, because that would help achieve greater outcomes in leadership endeavors.
  3. We also discussed the need for contemporary leaders to be flexible and adapt to the needs of situations and followers.

The participant's query pertained to the seeming contradiction between having a set of common qualities that make us leaders, a set of specific strengths that make us stand out, and yet applying different styles under different circumstances. It made little sense to her.

My response was as follows: Just as with everything in life, we will find that what works here won't work there. There are advantages and disadvantages to everything we do and every choice we make. Life itself is a major contradiction. Everything is based on intuition. Leadership is one of the most fascinating topics in business, which is why there are so many books, articles and courses on this subject. And all the points made above make perfect sense if you consider them in the right dimension.

We begin with the concept of the Level Five leaders, who, as described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, all harbor a certain set of qualities to get their companies to a higher plane of performance. These qualities should be seen as fundamental, and yet they are a contradiction themselves. They are a blend of determination and humility. People who are determined and confident in their direction are usually arrogant and boastful. They are often charismatic, outgoing, persuasive and impress everybody they encounter. Yet the Level Five leader also has the humility that makes her realize that every success can only be achieved and sustained when the entire team stands behind it. So she gives credit to others first when things go right, but seeks out the fault in herself first when things go wrong.

With this fundamental combination, which is rather extraordinary, we can implement everything else that is needed to become successful leaders, because we are determined to make things work but humble enough to stay away from narcissistic tendencies. We can identify our strengths and use them to advantage, but we also understand our weaknesses, which is where we have to be amenable to the idea of surrounding ourselves with people who can complement us in those areas. Our team should consist of people who balance us, so that we create a wholesome cluster of strength instead of a lopsided herd of "mini me's.

Finally, we need to face the demands of contemporary work environments. Change has changed, speed has sped up, and diversity has become more diversified. Our determination and humility should guide us in our understanding that we cannot treat all of our co-workers the same way. We will have to adjust our behavior to the needs of the circumstances and our co-workers. Sometimes we have to be directive, and at other times we have to be more supportive, persuasive or hands-off.

  • The directive style is necessary when we deal with employees who may be unwilling to do the job.
  • The supportive style works best when we lead people who want to do the job, but may not (yet) be confident in their own capabilities 
  • The persuasive approach is useful when we deal with people who know the work intimately but are a bit difficult to handle.
  • The hands-off strategy is best when we deal with people who are highly independent and efficient in their work and don't need directions, support or persuasion to get going.

Given our focus in making things work, and our increased understanding that different folks require different strokes, we have to tap more into our emotional intelligence and add some compassion to our passion, so that the achievement of our goals becomes a victory for all involved, not only for ourselves.

In short, the seeming differences that make for great leadership in our times are actually complementary qualities that manifest themselves in different facets of our performance. This is why "soft" skills such as understanding, compassion, empathy and spirituality are finding greater acceptance in today's professional environments, even if we name them differently.

Leadership is like a diamond: Its beauty lies in the fact that it produces a different glow in different positions. It looks different for different people, it is full of creativity and sensitivity, and it changes over time, just like we do when we go through life stages and multiple careers.

Joan Marques, Ed.D., is the author of Joy at Work, Work at Joy: Living and Working Mindfully Every Day and co-editor of The Workplace and Spirituality: New Perspectives on Research and Practice.Marques is co-founder of theBusiness Renaissance Institute and the Academy of Spirituality and Professional Excellence